Earlier last week, my students were working in small groups discussing their summer reading novel. As I moved around the classroom listening to and facilitating discussions, one thing I heard over and over again was how much the students really liked this year’s summer reading and that it was the only summer book they ever really read. The reason for that is the subject of another post entirely, but it is enough to say that as I listened, I also heard some other disturbing trends. One group of students complained that they had 4 tests the next day, which clearly was some Communist plot by teachers to ensure students didn’t have a life and/or failed their classes. Another group overheard and chimed in, criticizing their teachers’ handling of the material, specifically that some teachers didn’t seem to know the curriculum well enough to give correct information to students so they could study. A different group grumbled about band and sports practices after school that would keep them at school until long after dinner and they had hours’ worth of homework to do when they arrived home. I questioned them about their preferences or what they thought could be done to correct it, and before I knew it and could stop them, they were unloading years of bitterness about specific teachers and classes (they’re brutally honest!).

After narrowly escaping their diatribe and stating it was unprofessional for me to listen to student-teacher bashing, I decided the only way to get them back on task was to provide an outlet for their frustrations. I wrote on my whiteboard “What I wish every teacher knew or would do” and provided a pad of Post-It notes and pens for them to write whatever they wanted. I told them it was an anonymous activity and that if they would provide real feedback, I would blog about it. Goodness! I’ve never seen a group of kids move so fast! Amidst all the “Are you really going to tell other teachers this?” and “Do you care if we cuss to make a point?” and “How many can I write?”—I have to say, it was probably the most effective writing assignment I’ve ever given. Certainly enlightening. Often scathing.

I left the opportunity open for a week and the notes they made were quite interesting. I’ve taken them all down now and have reduced their ideas to essentially four categories, which are listed here in order of most popular student advice.

1) Students want differentiated instruction and varied learning opportunities. Students didn’t quite use those buzzwords, but they are shrewd and know how they learn best. They wrote of learning styles, multiple intelligences, social-emotional learning processes, and a desire for rigor that challenged them without defeating them.

  • “Dude, honestly, I just wish teachers would like fully understand that everyone learns differently. Seriously.” Several students expressed this frustration and a desire for teachers to vary their approaches to include seeing, doing, discussing, and writing. They want their learning personalized for their particular needs, not a one-size-fits-all lesson. They want interesting texts that stimulate discussion rather than mindless vocabulary worksheets, purposeful technology use rather than using technology to replace face-to-face instruction, and they want to express their own opinions because that is how they are able to form them. One student even wrote “just because I’m an AP student doesn’t mean that I am perfect,” which I believe is this student’s way of asking teachers to recognize her efforts in class as being the best she can offer and to realize that she is still learning. I’ve heard countless variations of this from AP students throughout the years who become embittered and overwrought because their advanced course instructors presume they already know certain information and tell students they aren’t “AP material” if they can’t keep up. It’s a travesty like no other and breaks my heart every time I hear it.
  • “Even if it looks like I’m not, I’m actually trying really hard. I’m just afraid to ask for help.” Students want us to know they care, but some are too shy to seek help or, as in one case, beg us “please do not force me out of my comfort zone.” They recognize they need to learn to become comfortable in certain circumstances but calling attention to themselves in a large group causes anxiety and makes a difficult situation even worse. One student even wrote, “Some students have major anxiety and they [teachers] continue to push the students while the students suffer emotionally.” Clearly, while we intend to provide students the opportunity to grow, in some cases all we do is push students further away. Allowing them opportunities to interact in smaller venues and giving them time to adjust to and feel emotionally safe within their surroundings seem to be the most requested ways to help them overcome their fears.

2) Students want teachers to get to know them personally, to be involved in their lives, and to understand the challenges they face outside of the classroom. Remember what it was like to be a kid? To be a teenager? Would you be the person you are today without the precious experiences you had engaging in various amusements with your friends, in extracurricular activities, in internships, in part-time jobs, or taking vacations with your family? Students want us to know that they want to be successful in school, but that school is not the center of their lives any more than it was the center of our lives. Inasmuch as times have changed, times haven’t changed all that much.

  • “I have practice. Every day. Sometimes late. Also, I have homework from different classes. I don’t always have time” and “I wish all teachers knew how homework is really hard to do at home” were familiar refrains oft-repeated. We push students to be “well-rounded” but some teachers don’t actually give them time to pursue those other activities that make them well-rounded. Too, some students, such as this student who has “to work until 10 pm to pay off my father’s fines and buy my food” simply have bigger issues to face than a biology assignment coloring a plant cell or 20 math word problems.
  • “I wish teachers knew their students’ situations, even though it’s personal. It can help the students’ connection and understanding with teachers. [It] could save a life.” Perhaps one of the most disturbing notes I received, but not one that was all that uncommon (yes, I found out who the student was and am working with him to receive help). imageOther students also mentioned that teachers can discourage students suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, and acute anxiety simply by not understanding their behavior in class is a result of a biological or chemical disorder and not a personal attack on the teacher.

3) Students want teachers who know the curriculum and can convey it effectively. I’ll be honest, this is the top of my list for what I want in a teacher, but students desire a human connection before they are willing to learn from an expert. After all, as one reader of my recent blog about what makes a great teacher said, students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  • “I wish teachers would focus more on actually teaching rather than teaching just enough for a test. They should teach us applications of the skills.” Students have a built in garbage detector and can easily differentiate between being offered an education and being given information. They want their school lessons to be relevant to their lives outside of state-mandated testing. Teachers often cite testing and test scores as a reason for their burnout and frustration; yet, if teachers feel overwhelmed and thwarted by testing demands, how must the students feel? I know it isn’t as simple as this (even if it is as simple as this), but if teachers and schools engage students beyond the test and the classroom, they will retain information and remember the lessons much longer, and the tests will take care of themselves.
  • “I hate when teachers have zero interest in what they’re teaching us so they make it boring” and “Teachers should be themselves and intrigue us to learn but without sounding dumb or tacky.” Tied very closely to a desire for real-world application is a desire for their teachers to show interest in their lessons, to put forth effort in their work to teach children, and to leave the horse-and-pony show at the door. Like us, they do not want their time wasted with tedious tasks that pad their grades.
  • “When I ask a question, I am not questioning your knowledge. I assume you know more than I do and I am not trying to outsmart you. I just ask great questions. Pamper your ego elsewhere.” I am intrigued by this student’s post because it suggests the teacher’s role in the classroom isn’t to convey a certain amount of information in a specific time frame, but instead to encourage students in the learning process by being learners themselves. Teachers must create a classroom atmosphere where “not knowing” is okay as long as “finding out” closely follows. When I asked my students about this comment, many of them remarked that they were more comfortable with a teacher telling them they asked a great question to which they had no answer but that they would look it up with the class rather than a teacher who seemed put-out by a question they ultimately did not (or could not) answer.

4) Students want to be treated with respect and dignity. This seems to be a no-brainer to me, but I know what they mean. Students don’t want a competition of wills with you, and they certainly aren’t out to purposely antagonize teachers with whom they have no beef, and yet…

  • “I’m a human being with rights and I deserve respect. If you want respect, earn it, don’t just demand it. In short, don’t be an a**h*le.” Probably one of my favorite posts, this student offers sound advice for people in any industry. I’ve seen teachers speak rudely to students for some minor infraction and expect compliance with their demands when they have just simultaneously ridiculed the student in front of his friends and demanded obedience from a student they haven’t even acknowledged as a person yet.
  • “Pick your battles.” More sound advice. Students want us to weigh the importance of their education over the rule that they not wear earbuds between classes or that they wear their IDs instead of attaching it to their backpacks or that they are not allowed to have piercings or tattoos (a losing battle, by the way) or even that their shoulders are showing. Kids are fairly reasonable creatures and if we give them a good reason for certain rules, they’ll follow them; in fact, they crave structure, but structure that makes sense. “Because I said so” never works unless it is by sheer force or coercion, neither of which we want to exhibit in a place where students need to feel safe, comfortable, and cared for in order to learn and experience success. When we seemingly privilege arbitrary rules over educating their minds, students shut down and nothing is accomplished.

This experiment was a very enlightening one for me as a teacher. It helped me to understand my students better, learn more about their aspirations, and ultimately connected us in ways I didn’t even imagine was possible when I wrote those words on my white board. I am glad I asked, and I hope you find some nuggets of wisdom in these young people’s opinions.

I encourage you to do the same activity and post some of your more illuminating responses in the comments. Better yet, give your students the link and allow them to post their own comments about what they wish their teachers knew.